Does Freedom Even Exist?

When the doctrine of personal liberty was eaten by wild animals

John Werth
Jan 14 · 6 min read
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Photo by Rehan Syed on Unsplash

Given the question of how to build a maximally free society, before going forward it will be necessary to consider the conservative’s bête noir: government.

They aren’t alone in this attitude, it’s one of the reason libertarianism is so attractive. And why not? Politicians are unloveable, even if it is the fault of their constituents — i.e. We the People — though we like to lie to ourselves and blame them. For the majority of people, most of what government does seems either inconvenient or something they could just as soon do without. There’s an old saying that when it’s working properly you never notice it, so the only time it comes to mind is when it isn’t.

Who needs all those agencies and rules and taxes? For instance, I’m too well-off to qualify for subsidies for the poor, but not rich enough to tap into corporate welfare. As a suburban dweller, I send a lot of tax money to cities and rural areas and there are whole departments of the government that I don’t need…or at least I don’t think so. It can be hard to tell. People will often base their assessment on “common sense” grounds, but there isn’t really any such thing. The last election was a stark reminder that rural residents don’t understand the way cities generate economic activity statewide. At the same time, city folk who need to eat must keep in mind that rural areas where food is produced are necessarily sparsely populated, so they not only don’t pay their bills, they literally can’t. So maybe what the government takes from me to pay for the needs of urban and farming areas really is to my benefit, whether I realize it or not.

But, I hear you cry, surely there is waste, fraud and abuse?!?

Um, yeah.

It’s a human endeavor, so of course there’s waste, fraud and abuse. As my father used to say when he wanted to end an argument, “it’s a people problem”: if humans are involved, there will be glory and there will be ignominy, simultaneously inspiring and a reminder why we can’t have nice things.

But whenever people live together there will be interactions, for good or ill. There will need to be rules and frameworks for settling disputes. Do we want cops and firefighters and schools and roads and libraries and the people with clipboards who try to make sure your lettuce doesn’t have e. coli on it?

They say the only inevitabilities in life are death and taxes, but left unstated is that taxes imply a government, so the list should really be death and government. And conservatives hate that.

Some people get so unhappy that they imagine a world without “collectivism,” or at least as little as possible. Lobbyist Grover Norquist famously said that he wanted to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” And periodically some group will try to prove the old saw that the government is best that governs least. The results to date have not been convincing.

For example, in 2004 a group of libertarians selected and essentially annexed the small New Hampshire town of Grafton by seizing control of the city government. The idea was to “get rid of every rule and regulation and tax expense that they could” and thus create a libertarian utopia to illustrate how their principles worked.

It was well organized and executed, and like all the other efforts before, it bombed. Totally. On the upside, it did inspire a book with one of my favorite titles ever, about which more will be said later.

They say it’s rude to spike the ball, but I could have told them from day one that this was going to fail. Libertarianism is a wonderful theoretical construct and topic for discussion in dorm lounges late into the night. I’d even say everyone should go through a libertarian phase because it is such an interesting idea.

However, it’s a young man’s game, not just because adherents are mostly male but because eventually you need to realize it isn’t feasible. Rachel Maddow once referred to Ayn Rand as “the libertarian author and philosopher who millions of college sophomores outgrow each year.” I think that’s exaggerated, but anyone older than 30 needs to sit themselves down and have a good think. With age you take on responsibilities, so you must be clear eyed, practical, and not immune to the lessons of history or psychology. The fact that there is not nor has there ever been a functioning free-market economy or libertarian pseudo-government cannot be ignored.

But back to New Hampshire. The consequences of the Grafton takeover were exactly what you might expect, such as a cash-starved police department with one officer who couldn’t keep his cruiser roadworthy even as crime went up. Turns out that law enforcement, like most of our daily lives, is loaded with socialism and the insurgents wanted that out. But as problems go, these are boring because they were so predictable.

Less boring is what happened with the local wildlife and inspired the book A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear. (There is an interview with the author here.)

WikiMedia Commons

Among the rules they tried to do without were those regarding zoning and waste disposal, because nobody wants Big Brother telling them where they can live or what they can do with their trash. But if you’ve ever lived in bear country or done any backpacking you know what came next.

Like most omnivores, bears are pretty bright when it comes finding and figuring out how to access food sources. Between some residents feeding them and all that haphazardly discarded trash, the bear population soared, and without any socialism to mount a collective response everybody just did whatever they could come up with. It was a trainwreck, and adding marauding bears to the inevitable flaws of inadequate government was too much. The town fell apart.

While the story has been pretty hilarious so far — one review of the book said it read like the plot of Coen brothers movie — humor must be set aside for a moment.

An unintended consequence of all that lack of government was that increased interaction with humans desensitized the bears, and they became aggressive. Prior to 2004 there hadn’t been a black bear attack in New Hampshire in 150 years, but since then there have been at least three. But here’s the kicker: two of those occurred in other towns. Through their irresponsible behavior, these people altered the nature of the bear population in an entire region of New Hampshire. For me, that puts a nail in the experiment — it’s one thing to allow people to screw up their own lives, but it’s a different matter when it causes problems for others.

One should note that’s exactly what adherents of “personal liberty” assert in theory but, as in so many cases, fail to live up to it in practice.

The world is complicated and our interactions with it are unpredictable; it’s not just a mixing board with levers you can slide to adjust tax rates, regulations, etc. Human society is an enormous, complex non-linear ecosystem, embedded in nature’s even larger and more complex one. I don’t think anyone predicted bears would be the end of the would-be libertarian utopia, but in the end the personal freedom they demanded for themselves led to others being hurt and created yet another of those un-funny ironies when they left evil, ought-to-be-drowned governments to deal with their mess.

So once again, it appears that you can’t even consider building a society-wide structure based on personal liberty without personal responsibility. And worse from the conservative perspective, in order to ensure freedom for all the collective has to be prioritized over the individual.

And they really hate that.

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John Werth

Written by

Musician and conductor, repairer of woodwinds, owner of dogs, former band director, lapsed mathematician, and scribbler of thoughts.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

John Werth

Written by

Musician and conductor, repairer of woodwinds, owner of dogs, former band director, lapsed mathematician, and scribbler of thoughts.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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